Project Sapphire was a successful covert operation that took place in 1994 and transferred highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Kazakhstan to the United States. At the time that Project Sapphire was undertaken, there was widespread concern that loose fissile material in the former Soviet states could spark a crisis.
The project was a joint effort between the United States, Kazakhstan, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to secure and remove weapons-grade nuclear material from Kazakhstan and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands or being used for illicit purposes. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency implemented the operation under the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar program.
The operation transported approximately 600 kilograms (1,323 pounds) of HEU, enough to produce approximately 20 nuclear bombs, from the Ulba Metallurgical Plant in Kazakhstan to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. A civilian-military team landed in Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kazakhstan, in October 1994 to handle 2,200 kilograms (4,850 pounds) of fissile material discreetly and pack 600 kilograms into 400 shipping containers. This team traveled to the plant before sunrise and left after sunset to avoid public notice. They worked 12-hour shifts, six days a week for four weeks to move the material covertly from the metallurgical plant to a local airport. Once fully stocked, two American military planes airlifted the fissile material to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where specially fitted trucks finished the journey to Tennessee.
Project Sapphire was hailed as a major success in international efforts to secure and safeguard nuclear materials. Considering the presumed dangers of fissile material proliferation and nuclear terrorism after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Project Sapphire was considered an important validation of the CTR program.
Center Board member Togzhan Kassenova writes that such an initiative was possible because of Kazakhstan’s willingness to join the NPT, Russia’s lack of interest in fissile materials, Washington’s capacity for policy innovation, and trust between Kazakhstan and the United States.